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Education and skills development in sub-Saharan Africa

Michelle Selinger
Cisco Systems
If Africa is to compete in the Knowledge Economy and is to see real economic growth then developments in the use of technology in education are imperative. Therefore, the UK Prime Minister set up a millennium initiative, Imfundo: Partnership for IT in Education, to consider ways in which technology could be used to support education, particularly teacher education, in developing countries, with a specific focus on sub-Saharan Africa. The view taken was that technology extends knowledge and education to poor and marginalised people, but it should not be seen as a panacea to the challenges facing education, but as a tool to deliver better education outcomes more efficiently. Alongside the development of the use of technology for education are the requirements for a supporting infrastructure and the human capital needed to develop and maintain it. Cisco with the support on US funding agencies including USAID and UNDP has provided a solution to the lack of networking expertise through the LDC initiative of the Cisco Networking Academy Program, a global instructor-led, web-based curriculum that is now taught in 140 countries worldwide. This paper describes these two initiatives and how they seek to achieve the international development targets of gender equality and universal primary education.


"I think my greatest impression was the eagerness of the countries we visited to embrace technology. They realised that IT could bring huge amounts of information to Africa, while at the same time Africa could share what it had to offer to the rest of the world and engage in the information society. The people we met realised that to do nothing would increase the digital divide even further, and that there needed to be a huge effort to bring the right technology to Africa and to use it in ways that would improve education" (Author's message for the Inception Report)

There are many who will argue that the last thing Africa needs is technology, food and clean water are far more important. However we also know that education can, for example, improve health through understanding of the factors that cause disease, make people more hygiene conscious, and improve farming techniques. However, getting information to the people is difficult. As so few go to school or are literate, much of the education that people receive is through traditional technologies. For example, the radio has been a significant source of public education in developing countries and has been a significant factor in raising awareness of health risks and how to avoid them (see for example [verified 2 Sep 2002] which describes how the Methodist church is providing health information though radio). In Rwanda child-headed households have been given radios, which they use, not to listen to music, but to gauge whether it is safe to go outside.

A major goal of the program is to provide educational information about HIV/AIDS, but that is being done gradually, ... While some segments deal directly with the disease - such as dispelling myths about AIDS - others focus more on maintaining good health
Technology can also be an aid to fair trade with farmers and crafts people able to gauge appropriate prices through the Internet rather than being exploited by more knowledgeable middle men. Notwithstanding, to do nothing in Africa would make the divide between North and South even greater as access to knowledge and information continues to grows exponentially in the North.

Although radio is prevalent in many sub-Saharan African schools, it is not yet possible to put newer technology into every classroom in Africa; many are without electricity or a telephone line. It would not increase the number of children who go to school and it would not necessarily improve the quality of their education, as without well-trained teachers so many education opportunities could be lost. However, technology can be used to train teachers, bringing high quality materials from the scarce educational expertise available in these countries and from overseas to a greater number of teachers through distance learning and web-based resources.

The starting point in using distance education will be the current educational levels of the learner population (the teachers to be trained). This will determine the balance between subject knowledge and pedagogy in a course, and how much needs to be face to face and how much can be delivered at a distance. Some teachers will come to their training programs with a good understanding of the subject, while others will need to build their knowledge before any pedagogical training can be carried out. The nature of the training will vary too, because the reasons for offering distance learning programs differ. In some developing countries, the mathematical and scientific understanding that teachers have is often extremely limited. For example, in Rwanda over two-thirds of secondary teachers have only secondary schooling themselves, with no opportunity for pre-service training in either the subject or in pedagogy (Selinger 2001). This restricts their ability to teach effectively while at the same time, there are few options open to them to increase their knowledge and teaching skills. In circumstances like these, distance learning offers a way - sometimes the only way - to increase their understanding and skills necessary to teach the subjects while they continue to teach. In other countries, like South Africa, teachers in other subjects need re-training in mathematics and science and here too, distance education provides a means of doing this. Teacher training institutions cannot accommodate all these teachers and in any case, with the current shortages of staff in schools they could not be released. ICT provides a means to provide current and culturally relevant education and training programs to teachers in situ, but this will depend on whether the current or proposed infrastructure is able to support it.

Of course, distance learning is not the only way in which ICT can be used; materials on CD-ROM, web based resources, e-books and electronic collaboration forums are all ways in which up-to-date materials can be placed in teacher resource centres in remote areas with a local tutor trained to use these to train teachers and to set tasks that can be followed up and observed in schools. With these ideas in mind the Imfundo project was established.

Background to Imfundo[1]

Imfundo: Partnership for IT in Education was set up in May 2000 as Prime Minister Tony Blair's millennium initiative for education. Its remit was to consider ways in which ICT could be used in education, particularly teacher education, in developing countries with a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa.

The project team were given six months to explore and report on this objective; they were asked to identify and develop a small number of pilot projects, and to conduct a feasibility study into how this initiative could be taken forward. The initiative was also asked to consider the involvement of the private sector, and from the outset included 3 secondees from industry on the seven strong project team. The secondees were the author who was seconded by Cisco Systems from the University of Warwick as an education consultant, a wireless specialist from Marconi and a business development specialist from Virgin One Account.

In the first phase Imfundo looked at establishing initiatives in Rwanda the Gambia and South Africa. By engaging in the issues involved in developing these initiatives, the Imfundo team were been able to experience first hand all the elements that need to be taken into account. This enabled them to develop procedures for the processes that needed to be set in place and to consider the additional elements of any development program that had to be taken into account when developing projects that make extensive use of ICT.

Considerations included:


Imfundo were asked to consider sustainability issues with a particular focus on involving the private sector and developing public-private partnerships. Many companies are keen to contribute to development initiatives, yet in order to avoid a plethora of well-intentioned projects that are unconnected and divorced from Government policy, it is important to coordinate efforts into a sector wide strategy. One of Imfundo's aims was identify and scope such projects in liaison with DFID and other donor agencies, and then draw in private sector support as appropriate. To this end the team developed the ResourceBank, a repository of private sector commitment from which the intention is to draw down resources for projects. The nature of this support would be in the form of project management expertise, hardware, software, technical expertise and other resources. It was not the intention to ask companies for donations: expertise and resources are what is required. The involvement of the local private sector was acknowledged to be as important as involving international companies, and indeed, could be crucial to ensure that projects are sustainable beyond the initial funding stage.

Another aspect of sustainability is ensuring that scarce resources are used as efficiently as possible. Because of the low levels of computer and telephone line penetration there is a rapidly growing interest in kiosks, cybercafés and other forms of public Internet access, such as adding PCs to community phone shops, schools, police stations and clinics which can share the cost of equipment and access amongst a larger number of users. Many existing 'phone shops' are now adding Internet access to their services, even in remote towns where this involves a long-distance call to the nearest dialup access point. A growing number of hotels and business centres provide a PC with Internet access. Public access Internet kiosks have also been manufactured and deployed in South Africa, where there is a program to provide access through the national post office network.

Some of the public Internet services are based in multi-purpose community centres (MPCCs) of varying sizes. These centres provide ICT facilities for small businesses, they train local people to use basic applications, and they provide a service for typing CVs and job applications (either by the applicant or by a person hired at the centre). One aspect Imfundo researched, when considering sustainability, was how teacher training facilities might double up as MPCCs.

ICT and education in sub-Saharan Africa

At the start of the project it was acknowledged that it would be important to understand and have information about the use of ICT in education and in teacher training; the issues of the current infrastructure in countries, including access and costs of telecommunications, information technology, and power; background to the reasons why children did not go to school; and why teacher training was so important. Gathering such information takes time, and none of it was available in a central location. Therefore a KnowledgeBank was established and published on the Imfundo web site with the intention of providing a central repository to inform the team and others, helping anyone involved in related projects to move forward more quickly. This knowledge sharing has been supplemented by an electronic forum in which participants are encouraged to comment on KnowledgeBank papers, and to share insights and information with interested parties.

Imfundo reached the end of its first phase in December 2000 when the secondees returned to their companies. The second phase commenced in April 2001 as a five year project to work in at least five more countries in sub-Sahara Africa with a new team leader and two advisers in place. The new team are continuing to scope projects involving ICT in education, maintaining the focus on teacher training and professional development, and on educational management issues, but not exclusively. They have refined the process of drawing down appropriate resources from the private sector and are adding more papers to the KnowledgeBank as the need arises.

Second phase

The second phase is now beginning to gather momentum and the shape of Imfundo has changed slightly. There is an even stronger focus on partnership and still a commitment to Universal Primary Education which is a fundamental goal of the Jomtien World Conference on Education for All held in March 1990, and reinforced in Dakar at the World Education Forum in 2001 (see [verified 2 Sep 2002]), with gender equality added as a priority, together with the general goal of making globalisation work for the poor.

Imfundo is continuing the work initiated in phase one in the Gambia and Rwanda, which are both teacher training initiatives, and are embarking on a further teacher training initiative currently being scoped in Ghana. In Ethiopia Imfundo are working with a local steering group to take forward ideas developed earlier in 2002 to identify how best to support the learning aspirations of street children and girls groups.

The developments in the ResourceBank have increased the range of partners and recognised that partners fall into different categories. These are:

It is at this third level that the Cisco Networking Academy Program can help support the development of the technology infrastructure and improve the potential for local employment in aspects of IT. There are substantial regulatory developments within the telecommunications sector in developing countries to ensure that access to the Internet becomes affordable and accessible. Policy makers are exploring ways to establish national and regional peering of Internet take-up in their countries. At the moment virtually all traffic from Africa travels to the United States before it is exchanged. National and regional Internet exchange points can considerably reduce traffic on expensive international circuits and thus bring down end-user costs. As these changes take place the demand for computer networks linked to the Internet will increase and Cisco are one company supporting these projects through their educational programs, particularly the LDC initiative.

The Cisco Networking Academy Program[2]

The Cisco Networking Academy Program is a public private partnership between Cisco, governments, educational institutions and NGOs created to teach students how to design, build and maintain computer networks thereby equipping them with the skills to be economically active in an area of employment vital to the new Internet economy. The Cisco Networking Academy Program is a comprehensive e-learning program that provides students of 16-60 with the Internet technology skills essential in a global economy. The Networking Academy Program integrates web-based content, online assessment, student performance tracking, hand-on labs, instructor training and support, and preparation for industry-standard certifications. It uses remote labs that can be configured from any desktop, and e-sims alongside the traditional hands on experience which students find the most rewarding and valuable aspect of the course. There is a close link to theory and practice and curriculum and assessment are constantly reviewed and revised to take account of feedback and to include updates as the industry changes.

The Program was launched in 1997, and there are now over 9000 Networking academies in 141 countries across the world. Nearly a quarter of a million students are enrolled in Academies in high schools, colleges and universities, technical schools, community-based organisations, and other non-profit educational institutions around the world. And over 73,000 students have graduated to date. When students have completed their studies they are ready to gain the first level of the internationally recognised accreditation for network engineers, the CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate), and many gain immediate employment as a network administrator in a small company, a school, college or hospital, for example, or as systems engineers in IT companies.

The program has been further enhanced with the addition of 5 new courses sponsored by IT industry leaders that will give students opportunities to gains skills in other related technologies. Students can learn Unix and Java fundamentals sponsored by SUN Microsystems, PC hardware and software skills together with network operating systems sponsored by Hewlett Packard, and Voice and Data cabling sponsored by Panduit. These courses are each 70 hours long and feature a high level of hands on, practical work to give students real skills in each subject, and most lead to an industry recognised certification.

The Least Developed Country Initiative

Cisco has invested $3.5 million into educational programs through the Cisco Networking Academy Program in more than half of the world's Least Developed Countries (LDCs). It has also created strategic partnerships to implement the program in LDCs with the United Nations Development Program (USAID), the US Agency for International Development - Leland Initiative, the United Nations Volunteers/UNITeS Program, and both the Cisco Learning Institute and Cisco Foundation.

There are now approximately 1600 students enrolled in the Cisco Networking Academy Program in 31 countries, 27 of which are in Southern Africa and of these 21 are LDCs. There are 181 trained instructors and 82 Academies currently established. In June 2002, there were 300 students who had graduated from this program. From the 244 who have supplied information, 75% have gained employment and 2% were continuing their studies.


Imfundo's unique contribution has become the way in which it combines the skills and contributions of a wide range of different partners to help African governments achieve the international development targets of gender equality and universal primary education. With DFID funding, the hardware, software and management expertise of the private sector, the research skills of universities, and the local expertise and involvement of civil society organisations, Imfundo is helping to create innovative and sustainable solutions. Coupled with this are the needs to ensure that robust infrastructure is in place to support ICT developments, and that locally trained personnel are able to maintain and develop this infrastructure; and it is her that the Cisco Networking Academy Program has a part to play.


Selinger, M. (in press). Teacher training in sub-Sahara Africa: The Imfundo Initiative. In D. Watson and J. Andersen (Eds), Networking the Learner: World Conference on Computers in Education VII WCCE 2001. London, Kluwer


  1. The Imfundo web site can be found at [verified 2 Sep 2002]
  2. Details of the Cisco Networking Academy Program can be found from [verified 2 Sep 2002]
Author: Dr Michelle Selinger, Cisco Systems, EMEA. Email:

Please cite as: Selinger, M. (2002). Education and skills development in sub-Saharan Africa. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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